One Portuguese-American Lapas Story: A Luso-Kid’s Day at the Beach

I’m a picky eater. And it’s not my parents fault.

As a child, my parents fed me “Portuguese Holy Ghost soup,” morcela (blood pudding), octopus, and queijo de cabra (goat cheese). But pretty much since I started to be able to feed myself all of this faded away from my intake.

I grew up eating grapes off the vine, and now won’t even eat grapes from the fridge.

Portuguese soup is served at almost every Portuguese function ever, and, yes, even though I’m approaching 30 years old, when it’s soup time, you will see me passing my bowl to someone else and clawing at the papo secos (Portuguese rolls).

I know, I know, I’m malcriada. But I like what I like

In the days before one could pick up Michael’s-brand chourico at big-name American supermarkets, my mother would take my brother and me to, then far-lesser known, “Michael’s Chourico” (Michael’s Provision Co.) store, which was less than a mile from the second floor of our triple-decker apartment in Fall River, Mass.

Everytime we went, my brother was always psyched for goat cheese. “You want white cheese, Kayla?” My mom would try enticing me in the store, “Your brother and I are getting some.” And I knew that was my opening. 

Most times, her answer to whether I could get something in a store was “Can’t afford it, can’t afford it,” but if I could find a way to negotiate, I could have a chance at changing the outcome — assuming, of course, we were in a Portuguese market. 

“Mom, since you’re getting white cheese for Kolby, can I get these?” I would ask, holding up a four pack of suspiros (meringue cookies) that stood in front of the counter where my mom would negotiate prices of chourico. She would sigh, but ultimately let me put it in the small carriage. 

In my childhood, the label on the Sumol can and bottle always read “maracuja,” but, nowadays, you can find it marketed, even in Portuguese enclaves in the United States, with a Spanish “maracuya” label. Photo taken June 24, 2020.

Then, my brother and I would be eyeing Sumol: the Portuguese soda-meets-juice. Being older, I’d instruct him to ask mom if we could get cans from the store’s fridge. I had already asked for something. He hadn’t asked for anything because my mom was always going to get “white cheese.” And, even at a very young age, I knew how to use leverage i.e. I was acutely aware of the relationship between Portuguese mothers and their sons. He would ask, she would say, “Yeah, get three maracuja.”

I would respond with the very sophisticated and articulate: “Duh, mom, obviously, that’s the best kind.” To this day, I only half joke that I question the integrity of any person who claims they prefer orange-flavored Sumol over passion-fruit-flavored Sumol. 

Then we would walk to Camara’s Bakery across the street and grab some fresh papo secos. And literally, this is all I ever needed as a child: Papo secos com manteiga (bread with butter), suspiros, a can of maracuja-flavored Sumol (or, if it was on Sundays after Church, um cope de cafe with French vanilla creamer). Ah, the days of a good metabolism — my heaven. 

About a year or two ago, I caught flak from a work colleague about my eating habits because people from work had been talking about some meal (I honestly don’t even remember which) and I said something like, “Yeah, not a fan.” She hit me with, “Of course you’re not, it’s not grilled cheese.” 

And now, reading this you might be thinking: “Wait is this girl even Portuguese?” Paciencia. Slow your roll, faz favor.

I was eating a lot of grilled cheese during work lunches because the diner was the closest thing to my work. The meal was cheap and took the least amount of time to make and consume. In the same way that I would eat a large bolo de massa (sweet bread sent by my mom from the Fall River bakeries) straight from the bag as I traversed Maryland’s flagship campus to get to my college classes, I was only concerned with one thing: getting back to work. Now, in a culture where, arguably, our most pervasive stereotype is being hard working, tell me that isn’t Portuguese.

“I don’t just eat grilled cheese, there’s some stuff I eat that you wouldn’t eat,” I told my friend. “Like what?” She asked, confident (after having worked with me for more than a year) that there would be nothing. 

In seconds, my brain of immediately went to octopus: the meal I savored as a child, but which grew out of my favor; and morcela: the blood pudding that I was never fond of from the start, but had been fed as a child. But, I thought, I should probably pick something I still eat; otherwise, I might be proving her right. 

Again, in seconds, the thought passed that I could mention my never-ending love of chichards and cavalas (the mackerel to which, as a child, I would sing “Foi Foi, meu amor, foi pexinho do mar” whenever my mom prepared it; the same fish my mother and grandmother cooked that would fill the house with an aroma, which, while my dad still can’t stand, I loved and still love).

But, to be honest, I didn’t know enough about how to explain that these fish were different (other than to say, the dish has this dope red pepper sauce situation, the fish still have their heads on, and my aunt eats the eyeballs). Listen, I’m not a chef.

Besides, I figured, it is possible that my friend had eaten fish that still had heads. She grew up in Washington state and I had sort of vaguely remembered her talking about camping as a kid.

And then I knew immediately. But did I want to tell that story? Ultimately, I decided we were on that level; we had become close and she really was a cool person, despite much of our friendship revolving around busting each other. 

Lapas,” I said. “What?” She asked. “In English, they’re called limpets, but I didn’t know the English name for them until a few years ago,” I explained. 

Limpets are a delicacy in the Azores. Sometimes referred to, in English, as barnacles, other times snails, or just simply shellfish, limpets have been called the Azores’ “most traditional (seafood) dish.” 

Limpet harvesting (i.e. the process of finding and taking limpets from their natural habitat for consumption) in the Azores has taken place since the islands were first colonized in the fifteenth century, according to several Portuguese researchers who published a joint study in 2014. 

As children, both of my parents would go out in search of lapas in their respective hometowns (my dad, Lagoa; my mom, Santo Antonio) on the small, rocky shores of the island of Sao Miguel, Acores. But they weren’t the only Azoreans harvesting lapas. 

Years after my parents came to the United States with their respective families, people in the Azores continued to take limpets from the shore at incredible rates. From 1984 to 1985, limpets represented 15 percent of the economic value of all seafood supplied via the Azorean fisheries auction — with 80 percent going directly from harvester to market, according to a report prepared by researchers at the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries for the University of the Azores in 2010

In 1985, harvesting was banned on many Azorean islands, leading to the increased “exploitation” (i.e. overharvesting of limpets) in other islands such as Sao Miguel and Santa Maria. Such rampant exploitation was taking place that the limpet fishery collapsed in the Azores to catastrophic effect by 1988. My parents’ homeland of Sao Miguel was the most exploited island during the 1980s

Tighter regulatory measures were then implemented in the Azores, creating some semblance of stability in the population. Multiple reserves have been “designated strictly to enhance the conservation of the limpets in the archipelago,” closing part of each island shore to exploitation, which is particularly critical from the beginning of October to the end of May due to limpet reproductive cycles.

All of this meant that, when my father and mother returned to the homeland for their honeymoon, in May of 1990, they were informed that lapas were “contraband” in Sao Miguel, and people were prohibited from taking limpets from the rocky shore. 

Gustavo M. Martins, a researcher of marine ecology at the University of the Azores, studied four islands in the Azorean archipelago: Flores, Graciosa, Pico, and Sao Miguel, finding that islands with a greater human population tended to have less limpets.

Unlike mainland Portugal, in the small shores of the Azorean islands, one person extracting lapas can have a huge impact, Martins explained, during a presentation titled, “Ecology and Conservation of Limpets in the Azores,” which he delivered Mar. 27, 2014. Very few lapas in the Azores are of legal size for extraction due to decreases in the number of lapas reproducing and maturing — a result of overharvesting.

Overharvesting limpets is a problem in the Azores as (1) islands with less limpets have more algae (because limpets consume algae with “radula” i.e. rows of teeth that scrape rocks of algae), which creates something of a snowball effect, as algae do not allow more limpets to settle; and (2) limpets serve as important habitats for other tiny species that exist on the outer shell of limpets, thereby maintaining biodiversity, Martins said.

Retrieved from researcher Gustavo M. Martins’ presentation

In the Azores, two types of limpets exist: lapa brava and lapa mansa. Lapa brava is the preferred delicacy. Scientifically known as “patella aspera,” lapa brava has a darker outer shell and is generally larger than lapa mansa (“patella candei”). Lapa brava (like lapa mansa) exists on the part of the shore between high and low waters, but (unlike lapa mansa) it can be found below the level of the tide, Martins explained. While lapa brava is known as “the Azorean limpet,” it can also be found in Madeira. Ironically, “the Azorean limpet” is considered nearly extinct in most of the Azorean islands, with the exception of Flores. 

Some researchers have noted that illegally-exploited limpets in the Azores have been sent to Portuguese emigrants living in the United States. 

More recently, my mom bought limpets from Portugalia (the new, fancy Portugalia with all the bells and whistles; not the old Portugalia that was in the cramped brick warehouse on Tremont Street where I used to go with my mom and feel the smell of bacalhau (codfish) pervade all my senses — trips I treasured because the owner Senhor Fernando once convinced my mom to buy me the best chocolate I had ever tasted: a Portuguese chocolate bar filled with a minty-gooey inside).

My mom came back from Portugalia Marketplace excited, “Look what I got, Kayla.” I sort of blankly stared. “You know what these are,” she said. “No, I really don’t,” I admitted. “Lapas,” she answered. I looked again; it didn’t look like lapas. 

The lapas I grew up eating weren’t the same species. The ones from Portugalia seemed to appear akin to the Azorean lapa brava. I had only known the exterior appearance of lapas as (what I now, only after researching, know to look like) the American slipper limpets, colloquially named for its white plate shell (partially covering its cavity) that resembles a bedroom slipper.

I’m not a scientist, but the inside golden-yellow “meat” (yup, also still not a chef) of lapa brava seems similar to the slipper limpet (at least to my eating eyes).

A limpet (believed to be an American slipper limpet) retrieved from Bristol Town Beach

Slipper limpets in America are, reportedly, native to the Atlantic coast of the Northeast United States. Some research seems to suggest that oysters accrued limpets on their shells that survived and developed in a new environment, thereby creating the American slipper limpet. 

Unlike the Azores, the Northeast United States has not overharvested limpets. Here, crabs, starfish, flatfish, and bass eat limpets. But most humans don’t.

In Rhode Island, you can go into almost any American grocery store and find lobster, crab, shrimp, calamari, little necks, clams, or cod (the latter which is said to be “overfished” in the Northeast). But, in my experience, you will never find limpets at Stop & Shop or Shaw’s Supermarket (the state’s seemingly most prevalent supermarket chains) or on the menus in popular seafood restaurants such as:

In the Northeast, the limpet is even said to be underutilized, at times, having been considered “rough” or “trash.”

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the chief steward of the state’s natural resources, does not even seem to provide instruction on limpets in its list of marine fisheries minimum sizes and possession limits

My parents (pictured below) would conclude, “Esses Americanos nao sabem.” It’s easy to scoff, but I’m old enough to remember a time when kale wasn’t embraced as a trendy food in America, yet was featured in soup served at nearly every Portuguese-American event I had attended.

Still, even the popular Portuguese restaurants in Rhode Island that sell seafood were not (and are not), as one might say, down with the limpet. You can’t find limpets on the menu at:

  • Amaral’s Fish & Chips (a hole-in-wall restaurant that, in my opinion, sells fish and chips and clam cakes that top the beloved Iggy’s) in Warren;
  • Riviera Restaurant (a more upscale restaurant that makes a bangin’ “appetizer” of little necks, which I order two of and make a meal) in East Providence; or
  • Cafe Central (a tiny joint that, for my money, tops the cake when it comes to Portuguese-style fried fish even among the stiff competition of Portuguese restaurants in the Ocean State) in Bristol.

Given my friend’s reaction, however, maybe it isn’t all that surprising. After I told her a story of my eating limpets, she did a quick internet search, finding and watching this video. Her reaction almost immediate: “Ew, you eat that?!” 

“It’s really good, but it doesn’t look like that, though,” I tried to explain. My friend wasn’t having it. 

You might think it’s a hard sell for the American (non-Portuguese) consumer. But a cursory internet search shows that people in Hawaii seem to be hip to eating limpets. Speaking personally, I’ve always thought lapas taste better than mussels. So is it the act of procuring limpets that turns people off? 

One company has found that this isn’t the case. Azorean entrepreneur Duarte Silva featured limpet foraging as a local attraction for visitors to the Azores as part of his start-up company Azooree

“For us, here it’s like a basic food we catch and eat. I realize that people from cities would actually find it funny, but rich, to gather them,” Silva said.

If I ever met this gentleman, Senhor Silva, I’d love to share with him my secret: I’ve lived in American cities most of my life. Getting limpets wasn’t funny. It was always a fun, but serious endeavor. 

The endeavor was so serious, in fact, I can’t seem to find photographs memorializing the many limpet adventures of my childhood (i.e. the days before everyone in my house had camera phones). Unless indicated otherwise, the photos herein were snapped via camera phone by yours truly in the Summer of 2015 (before my final year of law school). 

Portuguese people work all the time. Our people can’t sit down to watch a movie without doing laundry. We can’t hold a conversation without cooking, wiping down a counter or moving. Naturally, these behaviors would also manifest at the beach.

For an American child, the beach is for playing: splashing in the water or making sandcastles. In my Portuguese-American childhood, the beach was for this sort of playing, but it was also for a quest. That quest was to find lapas and (to a far lesser extent, periwinkles). 

Sometimes it would just be the four of us (my parents, brother and I). Other times, we would, as the kids say, “roll deep.”

I remember, at least once, hopping into the backseat of my mother’s grey 1988 Jeep Grand Cherokee: my mom in the driver’s seat; my grandmother in the passenger seat; my cousin Alycia and I (we’re 20 days apart in age) on the ends of the backseat behind them; my younger brother Kolby and cousin Brianna (they were born 38 days apart) sharing the single, middle seat with one seat belt buckling both of them in; and my older cousins Chris and Sean getting the privilege of stretching out in the trunk. 

Side note: This was before the days when the Jeep’s brakes would give out as my mother drove down the steep hills of Fall River. On more than one occasion, the brakes failed as we traveled down the Jones Street hill to where we lived; my mom yelled, “Start praying!” And I gripped the handle on the car door so hard my small knuckles turned white. My guess is that’s where my undiagnosed anxiety started.

Even when we were cramped in the car, it didn’t matter. In the dog days of summer, we were just happy to get an adventure, turning the crank-style handles to put the windows down and feel the fresh air. Driving from Fall River, we rolled up to Colt State Park in Bristol, R.I., passing the two life-sized bull statues (modeled by a French sculptor) “protecting” its entrance, and entering Bristol Town Beach, armed with pails and previously-used plastic shopping bags. 

Limpets sticking together at Bristol Town Beach

Another aside: It’s sort of funny to think about how so many stores are transitioning to paper bags to be “environmentally friendly.” My brother has ranted, “Which Portuguese person do you know doesn’t have a cabinet or a draw of plastic bags? Our people don’t throw those away.” Then I have continued the rant, recounting the days of bringing hundreds of empty soda cans to Shaw’s Supermarket in Fall River with my mother or aunt to individually deposit each can in the designated compactors, collecting five cents for each can. I was going to be rich one day…

When my father led the lapa quest in my youth, my brother and I would join him in putting on cheap water shoes, purchased from Ocean State Job Lot or Benny’s (the now-defunct retail chain), that sometimes fell apart after a single day’s use. We walked slowly up and down the rocky shoreline of Bristol Town Beach, searching amidst algae and seaweed, during the odor-filled (though the smell never bothered me) low tide, to find the tiny conical-shaped shells affixed to rocks along the coastline or, even better — affixed to each other in a sort of cluster or stack, in the words of one author, “doing what they do best, sticking to each other.”

Limpets stick together. This makes their reproduction convenient. The slipper limpet’s scientific name is “crepidula fornicata.” During the mating season, slipper limpets change their sex, laying eggs in thin-walled capsules attached to the base where the creature lives. In a nutshell (well, literally, in limpet shells), juvenile slipper limpets (always born male) become intersex then become female. Male slipper limpets are smaller than female slipper limpets and are usually found at the top of the cluster.

Lapa brava, “the Azorean limpet,” also follows this same sex change, which is important given its heavy exploitation in the islands. Because larger limpets are more valuable, larger limpets (i.e. females) are targeted for harvest, thereby decreasing sizes, distorting sex ratios, and lessening reproductive output, according to a report issued by researchers at the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries of the University of the Azores

Limpets known as “lapa mansa” in the Azores, however, have not shown such a change in hormones, that is, unless such limpets were subject to volcanic gases (e.g. in the shores of Ferraria or Ribeira Quente in Sao Miguel); the change in sex believed to have been brought on by a “stressful environment,” which also caused the limpets’ decreased calcium levels, Martins said.

Martins, a post-doctoral researcher, had compared the limpets in these areas to those of the same type in areas not subject to such volcanic emissions (i.e. Lagoa and Santo Antonio, the places where my father and mother likely would have sought such limpets).  

Let me be very clear: When I was regularly searching for limpets at Bristol Town Beach, I knew nothing of this limpet reproductive stuff, the different types of limpets, the impact of volcanic gas emissions on limpets, the overharvesting of limpets in the Azores, or that illegally-exploited Azorean limpets were sent to the United States.

What did I know? These things were often hidden, found in clusters and on the underside of rocks, and could be a bit of a pain to separate, but eating them raw was insanely delicious. 

We didn’t use any fishing gear, harpoons, trawls, poles, hooks, or traps to extract the limpets or the tiny periwinkles. We just used our hands and, if the lapas were stubbornly stuck together or to a rock, we would use another rock to pry them off, careful not to break the shell.

Of course, this can be something of a sight at beaches in the Northeast. We collected lapas at shores throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but most often at Bristol Town Beach.

The Town of Bristol has ranked in the Top 20 zip codes with the greatest percentage of Portuguese persons among all United States zip codes. But when I was a child picking lapas at Bristol Town Beach, I would have never believed this.

Blonde-haired children no older than 8 years old, venturing away from their culturally-white parents (that would be the day our parents would just let us, at that age, go and chat with strangers on the beach) to find out what we were doing. My mother (who literally talks to everyone) crouched down to their level, showing them the lapas, explaining to them that we find and eat the lapas, that this was something of a Portuguese tradition. And I, only a few years older than these children, felt some type of way about it. I tried to dissuade her. 

Why? First, this was our thing — our secret adventure. Second, I thought: The white people are just going to make fun; they won’t understand and they’ll think we’re weird. 

The kids were curious (a trait that remarkably links all of childhood, transcending ethnic background, race, religion, gender, and socio-economic class). But, sure enough, when their culturally-white parents came to retrieve them, their curiosity was not peaked. Instead, these pale-skinned parents came with the sole instruction: “Do not eat that,” they said, addressing their children.

When Gustavo M. Martins studied the impact of volcanic gases on limpets, he found that the limpets subject to volcanic emissions (e.g. the limpets in the shores of Ferraria or Ribeira Quente in Sao Miguel) contained a concentration of the heavy metal cadmium that was greater than the established limit imposed by European laws. 

For the record: Eating foods contaminated with a high level of cadmium can cause stomach irritation, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, flu-like symptoms, swelling in the throat, and tingling in the hands, according to the Better Health Channel. If consumed over a long period of time, cadmium can lead to kidney disease and weakening bones. 

I could not find any health research with respect to the consumption of limpets derived from the shores of Rhode Island or Massachusetts (if anyone knows of such specific research, feel free to float it my way). Thus, I don’t technically know how sanitary or nutritious it is to eat lapas from the Northeast shores where I have eaten them, but I can honestly say that I have not personally experienced any side effects.

In any case, it is probably safer to eat limpets cooked. But I prefer to eat lapas raw right on the beach, rinsing the limpet with the salt water before popping it in my mouth. But I limited (and still limit) my intake of raw lapas to no more than five given the obvious risks in consuming ANY raw shellfish and, besides, I never wanted to be comilona (greedy). We were searching for lapas that we could all eat together around a table. The quest was bigger than my own stomach or personal desires.

We rinsed the lapas in the ocean before putting it in the bag to take home. We would also bring salt water from the beach to rinse out the lapas again at home.

My mother or grandmother would sauté green onions, parsley, olive oil, butter, garlic and red crushed pepper in a pan, adding white wine for good measure, then steaming the lapas (in their shells) in this mixture. And then it would simply be poured in a bowl — the lapas still attached to their shells and the mixture along with it.

Lapas cooked, served, and ready to eat!

My mom would eat the lapas dunking papo secos into the mixture. My dad would eat a limpet, then use the empty shell to scoop up and slurp the sautéed mixture. Personally, I’m not a fan of the scoop-and-slurp or bread-dunking lifestyles. The lapas are sublime “as is” in the mixture — and, remember, I’m picky.

Last year, my brother and I accompanied my mom to her appointment with a nutritionist — a small, necessary part of a complicated health plan in Boston. She asked my mom about her common meals. 

Note: By this time, my mother was fully aware of her vulnerable kidney health status and had, for many years, stopped eating raw limpets as she was wary of the potential consequences of eating raw seafood of any kind.

My mother mentioned to the nutritionist that she was regularly eating red peppers. The nutritionist praised her for eating it. I interjected, “You’re talking about two different things. When she says she eats red peppers, you’re thinking it’s red bell peppers, not Portuguese red peppers.”

The nutritionist’s face was marked with confusion, so my brother pulled up the image of Portuguese red peppers on his phone with the accompanying nutrition label. The nutritionist reviewed the image and label, then immediately instructed my mom to cut this from her diet as the sodium level exceeded her daily allowance.

It was a small thing, but I wondered if I had gone to more appointments with my mom (or if her team of doctors had knowledge of such staples in Portuguese cuisine) whether her health would have deteriorated as quickly as it had. 

Looking back on my lapas story now, I think I was sort of protective of my family and Azorean culture. And this sort of “protective” instinct would be something I would continually struggle with. Wasn’t that why I was hesitant to share my lapas story with my coworker? But what does it mean when we shelter our culture from others in fear of ridicule?

Now, I can recognize how my own reactions could have played a part in the erasure of Azorean-American culture. Had it not been for my stubborn, but friendly, immigrant mom, I might have been complicit in rendering Azorean culture invisible.  

We tend to think of erasure as something that happens to us (and, it undoubtedly does), but that is not the only way that our stories and traditions remain unknown to mainstream America. Sometimes, we view erasure as something that Portuguese Americans consciously do: the embraced attitude of “well, my family has been in the United States a long time,” adopting assimilation with fully outstretched arms and denying your heritage outright, but sometimes we erase in ways we don’t realize. 

I wasn’t embarrassed to be getting lapas, but I was a young kid trying to protect my family and culture. I may not have been demanding that my family play baseball (instead of futebol), but, in some ways, my bull-headed reaction might have achieved the same, if not worse, effect. After all, the protection of keeping quiet about the things we put into our bodies did nothing to help my mom, who may have benefited if mainstream America (and thus, the American medical profession at-large) were aware of such things.

Keeping the culture (and our loved ones within it) alive requires self-vigilance. Many of us have already been untaught the language of our parents, forced, in our schools, to learn a language that does not serve us in communicating with our families. We cannot now take away our voice by silencing our experiences. If our parents could be fearless in bringing their traditions across the Atlantic, we should be fearless in telling our stories of these traditions. Alas, this is a lesson I continue re-learning even as an adult. 

Preserving Portuguese culture requires sharing our traditions and stories — not only within our community, but outside of it. If some people outside our culture want to poke fun, then we’ll deal with it. On some level, isn’t that why so many of our families (not unlike limpets) stuck together in enclaves? We know that being Portuguese in America isn’t always a day at the beach.

We are stronger together. But that doesn’t mean we must keep to ourselves. We have an affirmative responsibility to share our customs; otherwise, we become complicit in the erasure of our culture in American society. And this doesn’t mean I have to eat morcela if blood pudding nao e a minha praia

“My beach” is a place where — no matter what the tide — Portuguese culture doesn’t die on a rock, become extinct, or wash away, it instead sticks to you forever, becoming something you can take with you no matter what your next adventure is or who you might meet.

The beach is never just the beach when you’re Portuguese. We should let Americans in on this secret. 

2 thoughts on “One Portuguese-American Lapas Story: A Luso-Kid’s Day at the Beach

  1. Another great story. I did try lapas once that came from the Azores. They were ok. When I went to Sao Miguel last summer I didn’t try them. I like most shellfish except oysters and mussels. As a kid we loved eating periwinkles after harvesting them from the beach. Wouldn’t eat them now. But give me littlenecks or steamers cooked Portuguese style and I’m all in. I have learned to love chicharros and sardines no heads though. I don’t want my food looking at me. I look forward to your next article.

    Like

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